The Strange Art of Inspiration
How moving to Paris killed my creative mojo, & how I got it back
Confession: since moving to Paris with my family four months ago, I’ve written very little. It’s not only that I haven’t been inspired (guilty as charged). It’s also that I’ve felt unsettled, distracted, and overwhelmed. Setting up house, making doctors’ appointments in a country where you have to bring your own needles to the doctor’s office, dealing with French bureaucracy (which makes the DMV look like a well-oiled machine), and trying to make myself understood in French have seriously thrown me for a loop.
Ten days ago, I got an email from an editor friend in Alabama, reminding me that my story for a new anthology was due in two weeks. I’d completely forgotten that I was supposed to be writing this story. The story had to be unpublished, so I couldn’t just dig something up from the archives. I had to write something completely new. I’ve been writing stories for more than half of my life, and I’m not exactly young, so that’s a lot of years of writing stories. How hard could it be to just buckle down and do the thing I’ve always done?
Pretty hard, actually. For several days, I ruminated over what the subject of my story would be. I couldn’t get a grip on it. I didn’t have a character, and I didn’t have a situation. For a story to happen, something has to happen to someone in someplace. I had one part of the equation — the someplace, because a requirement of the anthology was that the story had to be set in Alabama — but beyond that, I was lost.
Thanksgiving eve came around, and I hadn’t written a single sentence for my story or come up with a single idea. We had family in town, and we were hosting Thanksgiving dinner, and I had to figure out how to serve Thanksgiving dinner in a place where I can’t just pre-order the whole thing from Lunardi’s, like I have done every year for the past ten years. I also can’t work our Paris oven (it has nine settings, all of which are indicated by little pictures on the dial, and none of the pictures on the dial match the pictures in the manual), and I don’t know what to say at the boucherie or how to even begin to order meat. I know that turkey is dinde, but I haven’t seen dinde anywhere in Paris, except weird, sad, dinde patties, and I wasn’t about to serve turkey patties on Thanksgiving. Oh, and my husband would be arriving back in Paris from the Peninsula at noon on Thanksgiving day. Which meant I had to pull this whole Thanksgiving dinner thing off myself, which I had definitely never done before.
So there I was on Thanksgiving eve, at our pathetic neighborhood grocery store, trying to find ingredients to make a pie. Forget everything you’ve heard about the glory of French food; finding decent meat and fresh vegetables in Paris is not easy. Having given up on the turkey, stuffing, and yams, I decided to concentrate on dessert. My mother-in-law always makes the pecan pie, and my sister-in-law always gets the berry pie from Noe Valley Bakery, so in all our years of hosting Thanksgiving, I’ve never had to make a pie. Now, it was time to figure out how to make one.
The grocery store didn’t have any pecans. They didn’t have any berries. They didn’t have a pie crust or a pan in which to make a pie crust. In Paris, there’s no such thing as one-stop shopping, except at the Bon Marche, which is one-stop shopping for billionaires, so I try to avoid it. The grocery store did have some slivered almonds, but that didn’t sound like a pie. Normally, I’d just make something from a box, but all of the directions on the side of all the boxes were in French, of course, and google translate is no good at translating recipes that require a high degree of precision. I left empty-handed, except for the wine (you can find decent, cheap wine at pretty much any grocery store in Paris, which helps you deal with the total dearth of fresh vegetables).
As I was lugging the bottles of wine home through the frigid rain, I remembered a get-rich-slow scheme my mother had cooked up when I was eleven or twelve years old. She wanted to buy ten acres of land on what was then the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama (and which is now home to endless subdivisions with names like Plantation Estates, a phenomenon that requires a whole other blog post). The land was populated by pecan trees, and her plan was that we would harvest the pecans and sell them to pay off the land, and then we’d build a house there.
We never built a house, and I have no idea what happened to the land — maybe we owned it for a few weeks or a few months, or maybe our downpayment never went through and we never owned it at all, or maybe it wasn’t for sale and we were really just petty pecan thieves— but my sisters and I did spend one sweltering summer collecting pecans from the ground to finance my mother’s dream of becoming the landed gentry. Okay, maybe it’s not fair to call it my mother’s dream. Maybe we all secretly wanted a big house in a pecan grove. We’d gather the hard shells from the ground and drop them into giant black garbage bags. After a few hours, we’d have enough pecans to load the garbage bags into the Buick station wagon and drive out to the nut processing facility, where the quality of the nuts would be inspected, the bags weighed. I remember it was exciting to sell something, but I also remember that a bag wasn’t really worth the labor it entailed. It probably wasn’t even worth the gas. I don’t remember how much we made per bag, but I’m pretty sure it was in the low triple digits (including the decimal), like $1.70 per bag or something.
That night, while I was in the kitchen chopping the radishes for Thanksgiving (there are a lot of vegetables you can’t find in Paris, but you can always find radishes), I kept thinking about those pecan trees, that land, the failed family business, the black plastic garbage bags, the unresolved mystery of one summer spent gathering pecans from land that never, so far as I know, legally became ours. And it gave me the first sentence of a story. I wrote the sentence in my head, as I often do. I told myself, “Go write that down,” but the radishes got in the way, so I didn’t write it down.
Then Thanksgiving came, my husband’s flight landed, we ran out and got three poulets, more wine, and a lovely meringue with pears on top (no pie). The next few days were taken up with family (thank goodness), and then school, and then the second weekend of Paris protests, which happened four blocks from our apartment. I woke on Saturday to the roar of crowds on Champs Elysees, and when I opened the windows I smelled smoke. My husband got tear gas in his eyes when he went out to get milk, and we heard helicopters hovering over our building all day. The week before, we’d walked home through milder protests, dodging riot police, which made us feel ever so slightly more Parisian.
Then, on Monday morning, I thought, “Wow, this story is due, like, tomorrow.” So I made a big pot of coffee (thanks to my sister-in-law, who had brought me real coffee beans from San Francisco, which happened to be French roast, which, oddly, you can’t find in France), sat down in bed with my laptop, and wrote the first sentence, the one I’d composed in my head on Thanksgiving eve. A second sentence followed. Then a third. The sentences kept coming. 3,800 words and four cups of real filtered coffee later, I had a complete draft of my story. I thought it probably sucked, but at least I’d written a story.
That night, when my husband got home, I told him, “I wrote a story!” My husband, who is very supportive, is always telling me to stop everything else and “just do the writing.” He offered to read the story.
“I’m not sure it’s really a story,” I said.
He read it, and then he said, “It’s definitely a story.”
“I haven’t written the ending yet,” I said.
“Yes you have,” he said. He pointed out the two paragraphs that needed to go, which left a paragraph I didn’t consider to be the end at the end. Sure enough, he was right, there was an ending. I’d just buried it under a bunch of other stuff.
The next day I took another look at what I’d written. Okay, I had to admit, it was a story. My Paris-induced literary doldrums had finally passed. I’d broken through, broken out of it. I may have served my Thanksgiving guests radishes, poulet, and meringue, but at least I’d gotten a story out of those cold, unsatisfying November days. It wasn’t the Seine or the art or the wine or the Eiffel Tower or the cafes (definitely not the cafes) that inspired me. It was a long-buried memory, a snippet of something barely understood, bubbling up from the subconscious. It was the pecans — or the absence of pecans. But if I hadn’t been in a dingy grocery store in Paris, unable to find the pecans, lost in translation for the thousandth time, there never would have been a seed for that particular story. There would have been another story, sure. I would have hammered something out somehow. But it wouldn’t have been that story, which required the incidental absence of one thing and the incidental memory of another vaguely related thing in order to take shape.
That’s the strange and sort of magical thing about inspiration. Two or three or four ideas or images or moments that don’t really belong together in any logical way somehow come together, and that combination creates a sort of whirlwind that did not previously exist, a little narrative storm in the mind. A story emerges from it. Every time you manage one story, no matter how messy, no matter how flawed, it reminds you that there are other stories that only you can write, because you’re the only one who will happen upon the exact memory, the exact moment, the exact series of conditions and turns of phrase that are required for that particular story to exist. Every time you finish one story, it reminds you that, with a little patience and a sense of openness to strange and surprising associations, you can write another.